Ministry reiterates its stand that mining will affect the Dongria Kondhs who worship Niyamgiri hills which has rich deposits of bauxite
More than four months after the gram sabhas of tribal villages in Odisha's Niyamgiri hills rejected multinational company Vedanta's proposal to undertake bauxite mining in the area, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has said a final “no” to the project.
The ministry has reiterated its stand that mining cannot be allowed on the Niyamgiri hills because it will affect the rights of the Dongria Kondhs, a particularly vulnerable tribal community that worships the Niyamgiri hills as its deity.
While the order is yet to be released by the ministry, sources in MoEF told Down To Earth, that the final decision on the project was taken on January 9. “We have reiterated our earlier stand. The decision to reject the final forest clearance for the project has been communicated internally and will be published soon,” said a highly placed official in the ministry.
The Odisha Mining Corporation Limited (OMC) and Sterlite Industries, the Indian arm of Vedanta, proposed to mine bauxite from 660 hectares (ha) of forestland on Niyamgiri hills for Vedanta’s alumina refinery in nearby Lanjigarh.
In April last year, the Supreme Court put the fate of Vedanta’s bauxite minining project in Odisha in the hands of people. It asked gram sabhas of the affected villages in Rayagada and Kalahandi districts to decide whether the tribals living in and around Niyamgiri hills have religious rights over it and whether such rights will be affected by the mining project. All the twelve affected gram sabhas in the region rejected the mining project one after the other in August last year.
Eye on elections
The timing of the MoEF decision is significant given that the Lok Sabha elections are just round the corner. In 2010, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi had championed the tribal cause by visiting the Niyamgiri hills and promising the Dongria Kondh tribals that their rights will be protected. It was then that MoEF cancelled the approval, which it had previously granted, to the project, saying the project violated provisions of the Forest Conservation Act, Environment Protection Act and the Forest Rights Act (FRA).
OMC had challenged this decision in the apex court in 2011. As per the the apex court’s April judgment, MoEF had to take the final call on the forest clearance for the project on the basis of gram sabha decisions. The ministry kept sitting on the report sent by the Odisha government on the proceedings of the gram sabhas for almost three months. The decision has come now after petroleum minister Veerappa Moily took charge of the environment ministry from Jayanthi Natarajan. Natarajan’s resignation, that came in the last week of December, was seen as UPA government’s attempt to fast track the pending decisions in the MoEF, in view of upcoming Lok Sabha elections.
On January 8, the ministry revalidated the environment clearance for the POSCO project in Odisha doing a repeat of 2010 when then environment ministry cleared one (POSCO) and rejected the other (Vedanta) of the two mega investment projects in Odisha.